What We Don’t Talk About Enough: Community Colleges

I think about community colleges a lot. This might sound like an obvious statement considering I work at one. But I think about how we, as a society, talk about and respond to community colleges—or don’t. They are institutions that serve people of all ages, interests, and backgrounds, which I consider to be one of the most exciting parts of working at a reference desk at a community college library. Having said that, I also consider how college is ingrained in the public imagination. 

There is an assumption that community colleges are for people who do not get into “real” college, ignoring the fact that community colleges are, in fact, real institutions of higher education. There is also the myth that the quality of higher education a student receives at community college is substandard, ignoring the fact that many professors who teach at community colleges also teach the same exact course, or a similar course, at four-year institutions. There is a misconception that people who graduate from community college will not succeed in life, even though we have seen time and time again that myth is unfounded. 

I reflect on the reactions I receive when I tell people I am a librarian, and one of the places I work is at a community college. Sometimes the conversation ends right then and there. Other times, there is a brief “Great” or “Good for you,” which often comes across as patronizing, whether the person saying it meant for it to be intended that way or not. Occasionally, there is a story about how a friend of a friend went to community college, but they are doing fine now, as if community college is a condition that people must overcome or endure. 

In TV shows and movies, books and magazine articles, college is often portrayed as students exploring the amenities of a four-year college or experiencing dorm life for the first time. The college experience is not often portrayed as a student who is still living at home while juggling coursework and a full-time or part-time job. It is rarely portrayed as someone returning to school as an older adult to further their career or learn a new skill. Yet, these are the faces of community college students, and their experiences are no less valid than students who attend four-year institutions. 

We can go ahead and say it: The stigma surrounding community college is rooted in classism and elitism, and we cannot talk about either of those subjects without talking about racism. How does this relate to librarianship? The same assumptions people have about community college students are often the same assumptions people have about those who work at community colleges. And it is up to us, as library staff, to counter those assumptions.

One of the joys of working with community college students is working with students who look like myself or my family. I can relate to the student who is living at home while working full-time and attending school-part time because that was my cousin. I can sympathize with the student who takes two buses to campus to find a quiet place to study because that was my other cousin. I can connect with a mom returning to school as an older adult, worried about balancing childcare and homework, because that was my aunt. 

It is often thought that those who work at community colleges should be taking advice and seeking guidance from those who work at four-year institutions, and that four-year institutions have little to learn from community colleges. But, as Meredith Farkas mentions in an older, yet still relevant post:

“Community college libraries have longer been scrutinized by outside entities and so have longer had to play the accountability game. Their more singular focus on student success and learning encourages a focus on assessment for and about learning. And I’d argue that their long history of being resource-constrained (by-and-large) has led in many cases to real creativity…There’s a lot we could learn from the approaches community colleges have taken to engaging in assessment practice.”

Meredith Farkas, You could learn a lot from us: community college librarians at ACRL

As Meredith aptly points out, it is most often other community college staff who are interested in the future of community colleges. If your institution receives a lot of students who are transferring from community colleges, why wouldn’t you want to learn more about those schools and their student bodies?

As academic librarians, we often move and work in silos. We, as library staff, must change that. That said, instead of arguing that we should do a better job of communicating with each other, I maintain that academic librarians at four-year institutions should be aware of and appreciative of the work that their colleagues at community colleges are doing under tight deadlines, budgets, and scrutiny.

In a time when institutions of higher education are continually being examined by outside parties, four-year institutions have much to learn from community colleges on how to succeed when others are questioning your right to exist in the first place.

Learning from Public Libraries

Inspired by April Hines’s recent tweet about what academic librarians can learn from public librarians, I’ve been thinking about the topic myself. It’s been especially front of mind as someone who transitioned from working at public library branches to working at a community college library. Similar to April, I’ve also heard academic librarians shy away from conferences that they consider to be too focused on public library issues, such as social work and safety and/or security. In the back of my mind, I’m reminding myself that those are issues that those working in academic libraries are, or at least, should be concerned about as well.

Many of us have had an experience where we didn’t know how to best help a student who was in distress. That’s social work. Many of us have had an experience where we were faced with an emergency or natural disaster. That’s safety and security. Dismissing these concerns, and dismissing public librarians in general, does us all a disservice; especially at a time when librarianship, in and of itself, is under attack. There are many ways that public and academic librarianship are similar, including having to constantly prove our worth to stakeholders and having to manage and maintain collections and other resources on limited budgets. 

Among others, here is a list of skills that those of us working in academic libraries can learn from all staff working in public libraries.

Performing Outreach: Public libraries excel at outreach because, well, they don’t have a choice. When you’re constantly asked if you’re still relevant, you brainstorm ways remind your community of all you have to offer. Milwaukee Public Library has become known for their clever use of social media, including viral videos on both TikTok and Instagram reminding people that reference librarians can, in fact, help you with whatever questions you may have. Meanwhile, DC Public Library used Twitter to satirize current events, and remind the community about the library’s robust audiobook selection. In a time where many academic libraries could stand to do better at making our voice heard, it’s in our best interest to not only learn from, but also to ask our friends at public libraries for advice.

Navigating Censorship: Navigating bans and challenges is not new to public libraries (and school libraries as well). Voices of censorship have long sought to cater library collections to their point-of-view; since 2020 these attacks have increased in intensity. Academic libraries should not dismiss these as concerns that are only facing our colleagues working at public and school libraries. These concerns have already started moving toward higher education, with debates about what students should or shouldn’t be allowed to learn. Academic materials and collections are already becoming the next target in these ongoing attempts at censorship. We could learn from public libraries about strengthening our collection development policies and reconsideration forms,  and learning more about First Amendment Audits, so that we can be better prepared for when, not if, these challenges arise. 

Offering Literacy Resources: From answering complex reference questions to teaching courses to first-year students to staying up-to-date with ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, literacy is at the core of what we do as librarians on college campuses. Like all skills, developing competency in assisting students with information as well as digital literacy takes time, and we don’t always get it right on the right try; I know I don’t. And it’s always a good reminder that public librarians offer information, digital, financial, and even health literacy resources for their communities, both through programs and classes as well as at the reference desk. Instead of dismissing public librarians for not having a specialty, we should be appreciative of the fact that they are able to navigate complex fields of literacy, often with limited time and resources. 

Lastly, in the past few years, we have already seen colleges and universities throughout the United States eliminate departments and majors, scale back on tenure, and reduce library staff. Not only have public libraries been used to fewer staff and static budgets, they have also had to continue performing outreach, navigating censorship, and offering literacy programs while doing so. We are fighting the same fight in terms of figuring out how to best serve our communities while trying to prove our worth to those who might not value it otherwise. The least we could do is communicate with and learn from each other.

Bringing Disability to the Forefront

It’s been a busy semester at the reference desk. Amidst the busyness, I was elated to see that some of my coworkers created a display of books relating to chronic illness and disability. I was even more thrilled to see that students were often stopping by to look at the display, telling their friends about it, and checking out some of the books that were featured. 

March is Disability Awareness Month, and my library makes sure to create displays and programming relating to chronic illness and disability throughout the month. But with more and more people, including college students, becoming disabled due to Long Covid, it is more important than ever that we consider the needs of disabled students year-round. It is also more important than ever that we as academic librarians highlight books by chronically ill and disabled authors throughout the year, and not dismiss displays and programming as options that solely serve the needs of school and public libraries.

Chronic illness and disability are personal to me, as someone who is disabled because of chronic illness, and whose disability is considered invisible. Some days are better than others, which means I use a mobility aid on some days, but not others. It is often said that disability is the only group that anyone can become a member of at any time. 

Katie Quirin Manwiller, who has written two previous posts on Conferencing while Chronically Ill and The Inaccessibility of ACRL 2021, recently presented on Reasonable Accommodations from the Employee Perspective for the Pennsylvania Library Association 2022 Conference. Her research cited 26% of Americans living with disability prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as 1 in 5 adults who will experience Long Covid. 

However, we never know truly how many of our students, faculty, or staff are living with either chronic illness, disability, or both. There is still significant stigma attached to either, leaving many people to decide not to disclose. Also, no one is under any obligation to disclose to us, as librarians. We should make an effort to prove that we are capable of meeting the needs of disabled students without requiring them to disclose personal information they might not feel comfortable sharing. 

What does this look like in practice? On my end, it looks like:

  • Continuing the practice of masking. While there is no longer a mask mandate on my campus, I and many others on staff have continued masking. Working at a busy reference desk, I feel more comfortable interacting with people while wearing a mask, and I’ve found that many students have appreciated that we are still masking, and are also choosing to wear a mask themselves.
  • Staying up-to-date on the evolving language of disability. Language is constantly evolving. Not all websites have caught onto the fact that disabled people have reclaimed Identity-First Language, as opposed to People-First Language, and often refer to themselves as disabled not as a person with a disability. I’ve found that the best way to stay current on disability language is to follow disabled people on Twitter. Even lurking will allow you to gain a better understanding of issues facing disabled people, which undoubtedly includes many of your students.
  • Promoting materials by and about disabled people. The display at my library includes a combination of memoirs by disabled writers, sociology books on the history of disability, and even ready-reference on disability history. There are also plenty of electronic resources that contain information on disability history, which I’ve been working to familiarize myself with over the past couple of months. This is a work in progress for me; keeping in mind that resources can and will become out-of-date. 
  • Being mindful of library space. I’m always conscious about how my library physically meets, and doesn’t meet, the needs of disabled students. In practice, this looks like ensuring that aisles are kept wide and clear for users with mobility aids and offering study areas with varying amounts of light in order to accommodate students with sensitivity to light and/or sound. However, being mindful, for me, also means continually learning and keeping in mind that there is always room for improvement. 

With this in mind: How have you met the needs of disabled students, and how should libraries improve going forward?

Holding Space for Students

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Stephanie Sendaula to the ACRLog team. Stephanie is an On-Call Reference Librarian at Mercer County Community College, West Windsor campus. Her professional background includes a transition from librarianship to publishing and back again, with a sideline in freelance writing. Her research interests include outreach, instruction, and information literacy.

We’re in the midst of summer and in anticipation of the beginning of the next academic year, I’ve been reconsidering the concept of space. This is a subject that has been covered on the ACRLog earlier this year, when Maura Smale asked how we can better shift services and spaces to meet students’ needs.

I have been thinking along the same lines, with a specific focus on how the library can meet the needs of community college students who are in a transitional stage in their lives. In my case, I’ve been seriously considering the needs of community college students who may be the first in their family to attend college, who are often living at home while working part-time and attending school part-time, who are often responsible for caregiving for older relatives and younger siblings in addition to managing their coursework, and who often speak English as a second or sometimes third language. 

I keep these nuances in mind since I remember how I felt as an undergraduate student, intimidated by the imposing rows upon rows of stacks. I think about how overwhelming it can be to walk into a library and immediately see imposing desks for reference and circulation, and not know where to turn because you can’t differentiate one from the other. I consider how intimidating it might be to approach a desk and ask a question, even if library staff happen to look like you.

I also consider the recent update from the ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey, which was discussed at a session at ALA Annual in Washington, DC in June 2022. Among other figures, the survey cited the decline in reference desk visits while circulation checkouts remained stable, as well as a decline in the circulation of print materials while the circulation of digital materials increased. That also rings true for my experience as a reference librarian at a community college.

How does this tie into space? Reflecting on the needs of the community I serve, I am often wondering how the library can better utilize space to serve students’ needs, both physical and virtual. For students who might be apprehensive to visit the library, how can we meet them where they are? In terms of physical space, are we taking advantage of our limited physical space in order to house collections that are relevant and up-to-date?

Thinking of virtual space, do we have enough technological resources in order to accommodate the number of students who lack a private computer at home and rely on library computers or cellphones in order to complete their assignments? When thinking about space, I’m also considering the needs of students who physically visit the library, but frequently utilize options such as chat reference and libguides.

These questions are often rhetorical since, similar to other libraries, there is always something that we could be doing more of, or something that we could be doing better. The challenge is often: Where do we start? What small steps can we take in order to ensure that students feel the library is an approachable space, both in terms of physical appearance and online resources? What can I, as a reference librarian, do in order to ensure students that library staff are there to assist them when they don’t know where to turn? 

My answer to this question is to develop radical empathy–a social justice concept of actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others–and to consider how I would approach the library if I were a student (and how I approached the library when I was an undergraduate student). To be honest, I often avoided the library since I was often scared to approach, and I was overwhelmed by the numerous virtual options to connect with library staff. It was often easier to ask a friend for help, and have them guide me to wherever it was that I needed to go, whether that was finding a specific course reserve or navigating a public computer.

Thinking back to the ACRL survey, I’m also keeping this in mind as more students check out items digitally instead of walking across campus, depending on where they’re coming from, in order to find course materials. It’s not just space, it’s also time and convenience. We’re all stretched thin, and that includes students, who are juggling multiple responsibilities at once during a difficult time in their lives–an ongoing pandemic and, for many students I serve, a move toward four-year institutions or an entry into the workforce. Space can mean a lot of things, but it often comes back to, How does the library hold space for the students it serves?